Pintas & Mullins Law Firm report that Exxon Mobile was recently ordered to pay $236 million in damages for contaminating New Hampshire drinking water with a gasoline additive. Known as MTBE, the state alleges Exxon knew the chemical was hazardous and a pollutant, but still approved its use for financial reasons.
MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, is a fuel oxygenates, which is added to fuel to increase oxygen content. It is used in gasoline in the U.S. to reduce vehicle’s ozone and carbon monoxide emission levels. According to the EPA, release of MTBE into water can occur by leakage into underground tanks, pipelines and wells. This can occur from a spill, emissions from marine engines into lakes and reservoirs, or from air deposition. The federal agency also affirmed that, due to its widespread use, the incidence of MTBE detection in groundwater supplies is increasing.
The state of New Hampshire recently filed a lawsuit against the Texas-based oil company after it was found that MTBE had contaminated much of its drinking water. Witnesses for the state are alleging that Exxon could have used a different, less hazardous chemical to increase fuel oxygen content (such as ethanol), and that Exxon’s own research proves that it knew MTBE would contaminate groundwater and would be extremely expensive and laborious to remove. Indeed, New Hampshire estimates it will cost $305 to sample wells, $218 to clean high-risk sites, $150 to treat drinking water, and $142 to pay for previous clean up costs, with a total of just over $815 million.
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New Hampshire is just one of several states coming out with these allegations. Other MTBE lawsuits have been filed against fuel distributors, chemical manufacturers, and refiners; some were recently consolidated in New York federal court. In 2009, a jury ordered Exxon to pay New York City nearly $105 million after finding it responsible for polluting its wells. Before that, California’s Sacramento County sued Exxon over similar allegations, to which it agreed to settle without a trial for $100,000. This settlement was smaller because its market share in the county was low.
In this most recent case, Exxon is arguing that it was in full compliance with federal standards when it added MTBE to its gasoline. MTBE makes gas burn more efficiently, reducing hazardous air pollution from vehicles. Exxon stated in court that it used MTBE over ethanol because MTBE was more easily available, and that its benefits outweighed the risks.
New Hampshire cited numerous studies by the American Petroleum Institute which showed that certain levels of inhalation or ingestion of MTBE elevated the risk of brain tumors and liver, blood, and kidney cancer in lab mice. The state banned MTBE in early 2007. The chemical can be carried great distances from leaks, and the state is alleging it leaked from gas stations, pipe fittings, underground storage tanks, and vehicle junk yards, to contaminate almost 6,000 wells throughout the small state. The contamination caused high levels of MTBE, ultimately rendering the wells unfit for drinking. Another 40,000 state wells are contaminated with MTBE in lesser amounts.
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After almost three months of trial, the 12-person jury found Exxon negligent for adding MTBE in its gasoline without warning New Hampshire of its risks. The state’s Attorney General stated that the $236 million award was the largest verdict obtained by the state in its history.
A former Exxon employee testified that the company found no need to issue warnings to its customers about the risks of MTBE. He added that the chemical was extensively researched, and that, upon its addition in 1985, gasoline dealers and distributors were given adequate warnings about the hazards and how to deal with any leaks. He went on to say that it was leaking underground storage tanks that posed the risk, not the chemical itself.
Toxic substance attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm encourage anyone in New Hampshire experiencing unexplained ailments to contact a doctor about the possibility of MTBE poisoning, and to then contact a skilled lawyers as soon as possible. An experienced personal injury lawyers can help you receive the largest settlement possible for past and future medical bills, emotional distress, and lost wages.